A Reflection: Outreach about digital preservation

November 7, 2019, 9:30am

by Matthew Yang

As we celebrate World Digital Preservation Day (7 November) with colleagues around the world, we at the Asian Film Archive (AFA) are reflecting on a recent engagement with a group of film students in a film school in Singapore. We were speaking to them as part of the AFA’s engagement with the filmmaking community on preserving and caring for their works, to encourage good practices and to create awareness on common misconceptions about preservation practices.

Our interaction with the students revealed that complacency is a major plague amongst content producers. There was general consensus from the students that born digital materials are less prone to data loss, and that the common hard disk is a reliable backup. As we stood between them and their weekend on a Friday evening recounting the horror stories of lost films and unrevivable corrupted drives, many remained unmoved, attesting to their confidence in their methods and the current technology. These are frightening signs for any archivist as we pondered the fate of the materials these aspiring filmmakers will be making. How can we be more convincing? And how can we engage them better?

Below are some of the underlying assumptions we encountered during these student interactions.

Assumption 1: My files are safe if I back them up to an external hard disk drive (HDD).

Many filmmakers that we work with solely rely on one back up, rather than backing up on multiple and on different media, despite the falling prices of storage media.

Some are even convinced that solid-state drives (SSD) are robust backups since SSDs do not have any moving parts in them.

Assumption 2:
HDDs can last forever.

Many are unaware that HDDs have a lifespan and are surprised to learn that they last on average between 3-5 years. Unfortunately, most only find out when it’s too late.

Assumption 3: Everything will be accessible as long as they are on my HDD.

Even if everything is accessible, can they be easily found? In the drives that arrive at the archive, we often navigate through numerous  files that have been poorly organised, bad naming conventions and duplicates of materials. For instance, it is difficult to determine the final version of a film when there are multiple ‘finals’ that is named for the same files. Often, the filmmakers do not know what they have saved and are unable to identify one file content from the next.

Assumption 4:
The archive will help retrieve files from my failed drive.

There is a classic case of mistaken identity – we are the Asian Film Archive, not the Asian Film/Data Recovery Centre. It would truly be a miracle, but the occurrence of digital loss is real and painful, something we really wish we saw less of.

After some introspection and soul-searching, we felt it was necessary for good practices to be inculcated early. Hence, AFA plans to work closely with film educators since they are the first touchpoint of the students. We intend to provide the teachers with guidelines on caring for digital materials, which can help their students establish simple workflows on protecting their digital assets. For a start, introducing strategies such as the 3-2-1 back-up rule and simple tools such as Fixity and Beyond Compare, would hopefully encourage students to practise good data management.

In 2020, we plan to organise talks and workshops to engage the students earlier in their freshman year to start them on implementing data management better in their production pipeline. The point is to prevent the archival process from being an afterthought, which is currently the case. We want to encourage good habits and to encourage them early.

While World Digital Preservation Day is a time to celebrate the brilliant work that is done globally by our counterparts in the digital technology industry, it is a recourse for us in the digital film preservation industry to reflect on how we can further the preservation of  Asian digital cinematic heritage as we continue to address challenges in digital preservation. While there are numerous threats to the data we care for, the most pressing is getting our immediate stakeholders to start caring for their assets correctly and to recognise the urgency in starting immediately rather than putting things off. The community needs to work with the archive as it takes a united effort to make all this content available for future generations.